Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Last Laugh

White Sox 6, Twins 2
White Sox 7, Twins 4
Twins 20, White Sox 1

That was cathartic, huh?

After following up their hard-fought, narrow sweep at the hands of the Yankees with 2 rather poor games in the Windy City, the Twins emphatically ended their 6-game losing streak with their best all-around game since 2002 (a 23-2 drubbing of Cleveland, with both runs coming on Jim Thome solo HR, if I recall correctly).

Facing a pair of tough LHP in Mark Buerhle and John Danks, runs figured to be at a premium, so the Twins' starters for those games, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, needed to be a whole lot finer than they were. Baker issued a season-high 4 BB and served up 2 more HR, leaving after 5 IP with 105 pitches thrown. Liriano skated through 3 scoreless innings before allowing 7 R in the 4th, capped by the 2nd HR of the inning, Jermaine Dye's grand slam. He was gone after 4 IP and 90 pitches with 3 BB and only 1 K.

In each game, Scott Podsednik was picked off first, but wound up with a SB anyway when Nick Punto dropped Justin Morneau's throw on Tuesday and Michael Cuddyer's throw hit Podsednik for an E on Wednesday. (All 3 of Cuddyer's E have come playing 1B. In Chicago.) The offense's string of games with 5+ BB ended as they accumulated just 4 BB in the first 2 games. They continued to struggle with RISP, scoring 5 of their 6 R on HR or SF.

But then, the offense that had been bottled up all week burst out with an orgy of hitting that we hadn't seen in nearly 2 years. 20 H. Another 5 BB. 4 HR, including 3 with men on base! 6 of the starters with multi-hit games. Matt Tolbert went yard, for crying out loud!

Was the secret moving Joe Mauer up to the #2 slot? I was going to comment about how poorly that slot had performed for the Twins this year, but Gardy noticed and did something about it. He's too prone to leaving spring training with grand ideas about how players ought to perform, but once the team gets into late May, he makes adjustments that produce results. This performance by the offense should certainly reinforce the new lineup for awhile. I still think Cuddyer is swinging well enough right now to get a chance to break up what was, today, a string of 4 straight lefties at the top of the order.

Nick Blackburn, for his part, stayed pretty aggressive and won his first career game at the Cell. He got a huge break in the 3rd when Alexi Ramirez' bases-loaded liner went straight to Joe Crede, who found Podsednik too far off 1B for a DP. Blackburn got Dye to end the inning, and the Sox never threatened him again.

So here's the punchline: thanks to this afternoon's laugher, the Twins not only outscored the Sox in this series, they actually scored more runs than they allowed on the whole 1-6 road trip (42-35). Suddenly, the Twins' run differential for the season is only -6, and their 19-23 record starts to look rather unjust. Particularly their 8-12 May record; they're +17 in run differential for those 20 games. Hopefully, they won't end up like Cleveland last year.

Roster Move

In order to make room for Anthony Swarzak, who will indeed get a chance to take Glen Perkins' spot in the rotation, the Twins tried to clear Craig Breslow through waivers, but promptly lost him to the Oakland A's. Effectively, this means that the Twins traded Breslow for Sean Henn. Henn has been solid at Rochester this year, but he has lousy career numbers in the Bigs. Worst of all, he's not particularly good at getting out lefties: they have about a .760 OPS against him in his career. Breslow held lefties to about .640. He was off to a ghastly start this year, with BB and HR rates so unprecedented that there wasn't much reason to think they'd continue. Henn, meanwhile, has outperformed his career rates at Rochester, and so has nowhere to go but down.

This was another dumb move by Mr. Smith. Swarzak should have been called up on Tuesday, or Perkins should have been DLed today, but there was no reason to involve Henn or risk Breslow at all. But the strategic failure goes beyond these guys. It's this mental block everybody seems to have about there being more than 2 LHP in the bullpen. As long as 1 of them is awesome at getting out lefties and the others can also get out righties, who cares? Breslow and Jose Mijares, when pitching up to their ability, can get out both. The rationale for letting Dennys Reyes walk away was that Breslow and/or Mijares could fulfill his role for less money. Well, neither has filled his role, and now Henn will be asked to do it with his .760 OPS against. Reyes, meanwhile, has allowed a .472 OPS against lefties for the Cardinals, with 7 K and 1 BB against 28 batters faced so far. Think of all the lefties that have hurt the Twins' 'pen this year, and how nice it would have been to have an arm like that at their disposal. Sigh.

Minor League Notes

Whatever was bothering Alexi Casilla at the plate in the Majors, he didn't take it with him to Rochester. He's hitting .353/.411/.471 with 3 3B and a 8/5 K/BB ratio since his demotion. Tolbert had better keep hitting like he did on Thursday. And Danny Valencia and Anthony Slama have added to their promotion cases this week. Valencia hit his 5th HR today, raising his season line to .324/.409/.595, good for 2nd in the Eastern League in OPS. Slama struck out 2 in a scoreless inning on Wednesday, and now has 35 K in 22.1 IP with a 1.61 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, and still just the one HR allowed.

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